Asked about the great figures she has worked with, legendary singer Hilde Zadek has only one word to say about Leonard Bernstein: boundless.

And no word could describe him better, the genius of the century who wanted two things more than anything in the world: to be loved by everyone, and to not live a single day without music. He is successful in fulfilling the second wish up to his final breath; the first, however, is not possible, which he sees as the tragedy of his life.

It is a life that is brimming to overflowing and that turns out to be much too short for him, since the creativity and energy of this multifaceted man know no limits - whether as a conductor who practically dances on the podium, a composer who is at home in every genre, a teacher, author, political activist, or music educator (he is a music educator with every fiber of his being before the term is even invented). But unfortunately when it comes to his body, Bernstein also knows no moderation; despite having emphysema, he smokes up to 100 cigarettes a day and takes numerous pills for every life circumstance, washing them down with generous quantities of scotch.

Thus many things remain open, and Bernstein even greets his 1990 heart attack with a question: “What’s this?”

© Ulla Pilz, ORF - Radio Österreich 1


  • Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1918 as the son of Russian Jewish immigrants

  • 1943 Steps in for Bruno Walter, who is taken ill, to conduct the New York Philharmonic

  • 1944 First recording contract with RCA Victor

  • 1945-48 Music director of the New York City Orchestra

  • 1946 European debut with the Czech Philharmonic. Conducts from the piano for the first time (Ravel’s G major Concerto with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra)

  • 1953 First American to conduct at Milan’s La Scala (Cherubini’s Medea with Maria Callas)

  • 1956 Long-term recording contract with Columbia Records

  • 1958-69 Principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic

  • 1958-72: 53 different Young People’s Concert programs, some of which are broadcast on CBS television

  • 1964 Debut at the Metropolitan Opera (Verdi’s Falstaff, directed by Franco Zeffirelli)

  • 1971 First film contract with Unitel for a recording of Mahler and Brahms symphonies, with more than 200 concert films to follow

  • Author of five books on different musical subjects

Did you know?

  • At the age of sixteen, Bernstein creates and produces his own version of Carmen, singing the title role himself.

  • Conducts more than 1000 concerts with the New York Philharmonic alone.

  • For Bernstein, Elvis Presley is the greatest cultural phenomenon of the 20th century.

  • Bernstein is an enthusiastic husband and the father of three children, but this doesn’t prevent him from promiscuous relationships and giving expression to his homosexuality. He returns to his ex-wife when she is diagnosed with cancer.

  • He is so well known for hugging and kissing everybody the moment he meets them that prior to an audience with the Pope, a friend cautions him by telegram not to kiss him on the mouth, but only his ring.

  • When he is invited to the White House, Bernstein immediately sits down in John F. Kennedy’s favorite rocking chair and tells him, in detail, how he should run the country.

  • Bernstein considers himself quite a good teacher since he loves learning himself and sees himself as an eternal student, citing his students as the people who influence him most.

  • On his 70th birthday he says, “I smoke. I drink. I stay up all night. I screw around. I’m overcommitted on all fronts.”

  • An avowed arch-liberal, champion of equal rights in every form, and peace activist, Bernstein refuses to accept the National Medal of Arts in 1989 in protest at the financing being withdrawn for an art and AIDS exhibition.